The White Lady Of The Sea

When the Esmeralda docks in ports around the world, its crew makes sure the ‎“White Lady,” as they call their ship, is ready for visitors. The ship has made more than 300 port calls as Chile’s “floating embassy,” spreading goodwill and the‎ message of democracy through diplomatic visits around the globe. Its deck has received thousands of dignitaries, military commanders, media and visitors.‎
WRITER-ID | 11 February 2009

The Chilean training ship Esmeralda, seen here at night, has made more than 300 port calls in its 54-year career. (Chilean navy photo)

When the Esmeralda docks in ports around the world, its crew makes sure the ‎“White Lady,” as they call their ship, is ready for visitors. The ship has made more than 300 port calls as Chile’s “floating embassy,” spreading goodwill and the‎ message of democracy through diplomatic visits around the globe. Its deck has received thousands of dignitaries, military commanders, media and visitors.‎

‎“We spread a message of brotherhood around the world when we encounter other ‎cultures, roots and traditions, contributing in a very special way by spreading knowledge of our nation and our country’s foreign policy,” said the ship’s commander Capt. Victor Alejandro Zanelli Suffo. ‎

Originally built as a training ship for Spain, the Esmeralda is now a beacon of change, progress and transformation for Chile. Although it reportedly served as a prison ship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, the ship has since resumed the peaceful missions for which it was intended — friendship and training.‎

The students assigned to Esmeralda face intense challenges, long oceanic crossings and adverse weather conditions. For Esmeralda students, their experiences at sea will ‎change their lives forever. Midshipman Juan Antonio Widow wanted to be a sailor since ‎he was a child, a passion inherited from his father, a naval officer.‎

Now, his dream takes him onto the deck of the Esmeralda, the second tallest and longest ‎sailing ship in the world, where he is training to become a naval officer on the steel-‎hulled, four-mast vessel. Being part of the crew is a unique experience. “It’s an intense ‎phase in which the know-how learned in the naval academy begins to be carried out ‎through practice,” the 21-year-old midshipman said.‎

Midshipman Widow believes his fellow sailors have special qualities that allow them to ‎be aboard the Esmeralda, like “patience, discipline and will, besides an unbreakable spirit ‎of service to the country.” After seven months on board, he has learned the importance of ‎teamwork, collaboration and friendship. Only officers from Chile’s Arturo Prat Naval ‎Academy and the 15 to 20 top enlisted students from the Alejandro Navarete apprentice school can be part of the instructional program for a year.‎

According to Captain Zanelli, the training must ensure midshipman and enlisted sailors ‎achieve all the academic and practical objectives of the training. “They must develop ‎diverse tasks which drive them to face professional and personal challenges as part of an ‎endless number of parallel activities that require maximum efficiency,” he said.‎

The curriculum includes classes in maneuvers, navigation, damage control, leadership ‎and administration. The instruction encourages values and shows students the ‎commitment of a navy career. The captain affirms students will be prepared to fulfill the ‎duty they have sworn to Chile and its military.‎

Sailor Mauricio Rodrigo Fonseca, a 23-year-old who came on board 11 months ago as a ‎corpsman, is prepared to be a sailor. He chose his career, initially enticed by the ‎distinguished appeal of the navy’s uniform, but quickly realized the opportunity, ‎adventure and the significance of his new career path. “I discovered the true essence of ‎the navy, to sail, which has marked in me different expectations to the ones I had before ‎this cruise,” he said.‎

In each port, the crew takes part in traditional military protocol, including participating in ‎parades, laying wreaths at military monuments and exchanging ideas. This binds long-‎time friendships and encourages camaraderie among countries.‎ The ship has a 308-member crew, including 23 officers, 80 midshipman, 142 seamen and ‎‎63 sailors in training. The Esmeralda has no female sailors yet, but once the ship is ‎retrofitted, women will join the crew when it sets sail in 2011.‎

In 2008, the Esmeralda celebrated its 53rd instructional cruise. Before it returned home to ‎Valparaiso, Chile, in November, it docked in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It had been out to ‎sea since June, and traveled to Guayaquil, Ecuador; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago;‎ Casablanca, Morocco; Cadiz, Spain; Split, Croatia; Istanbul, Turkey; Haifa, Israel; Pireo, ‎Greece; Alexandria, Egypt; Cochin, India; and Cape Town, South Africa. Traveling on ‎international waters is not always easy or safe. Captain Zanelli said there is always the ‎possibility of an attack — vandalism, piracy and terrorism. But the crew takes ‎precautionary measures in case of such an incident. And the ship also relies on local ‎authorities for additional support.‎

Sailing around the Gulf of Aden, in front of Eritrea and Somalia — a maritime zone ‎where acts of piracy and ship abductions are common — was a challenge for them, ‎Captain Zanelli said. “Our passage through these waters, which took almost three days of ‎navigation, forced us to redouble our vigilance efforts and adopt special security ‎measures on board to repel any attack attempts.” ‎

Just 25 miles from their location, pirates captured two freighters. Three weeks before the ‎cruise ended, the captain considered it a success, with no security incidents. During its ‎service, the Esmeralda has sailed more than 1.3 million nautical miles, which equals 60‎ trips around the world. She has participated in a host of events, including Operation Sail, held in New York, in 1964, 1976 and 1989; and in the Work Sail in Osaka, Japan, in ‎‎1983, 1982 and 1990.‎

*Spirit of the Esmeralda*

International integration is part of Esmeralda’s instructional ‎program. Captain Zanelli said Chile has educational agreements with naval communities ‎around the world. “We consider the exchange with members from other navies a great ‎benefit, since we give and receive very valuable professional experience in different ‎areas. This is part of our essence since navies, by nature, have always been globalized.”‎

In 2008, six navy officers from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru ‎were part of the exchange. Also, one officer each from Colombia, South Korea, Canada, ‎Australia, New Zealand, Morocco, Japan, Kenya, Egypt, China, Italia, Spain, Croatia, ‎Greece, Turkey, France and Israel were aboard for approximately two months.‎

Chief Petty Officer Francisco Echeverria, who has been assigned to the ship for nine ‎years, has seen different generations of students. He remembers their enthusiasm when on ‎board. “You can see how they put forth the effort to learn quickly,” the 45-year-old ‎boatswain said. He feels satisfied when he meets apprentices after they progress in their ‎careers, a relationship good for the sailors and the school. “Years later, when we meet ‎again, we remember everything we experienced on board.”‎

Other Latin America navy training ships include Argentina’s Libertad and President ‎Sarmiento; Brazil’s Sagres; Venezuela’s Simon Bolívar; Colombia’s Gloria; Ecuador’s ‎Guayas; and Mexico’s Cuauhtémoc.‎

After almost a decade of crossing the ocean, Chief Petty Officer Echeverria said he has ‎learned not to be afraid of the sea, but to respect it. For him, a sailor’s life has constant ‎challenges. But a well-prepared ship like the Esmeralda can weather them all. “The sea ‎will always have secrets. For that reason, what better way is there to prepare than on a ‎wind-powered vessel?”‎

After a cruise on the Esmeralda, the sailors are ready to sail into the light of Chile’s ‎bright future.‎

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